Judge, jury, and executioner?

“I never broke the law. I am the law!”
–Judge Dredd

In the United States and, indeed, most other countries that claim the mantle of being “civilized,” there is a deliberate chain of events that is designed to unfold between the presumption of quilt and the actions stemming from that presumption. That chain of events is lengthy, and it is lengthy by design. It is lengthy by design so that every opportunity can be made by the accused to refute the presumption of guilt before the state can accord a punishment that will have irrevocable consequences. This applies to everything from petty larceny to the death penalty. Especially the death penalty.

Except for those, apparently, that we charge with keeping the peace. For it is seeping increasingly into the public consciousness that, for whatever reason, we have empowered our police officers to do away with all of that. Our police officers have been empowered, with little oversight and little repercussion, to, solely at their discretion, short circuit that purposely designed lengthy chain of events and execute the presumption of guilt in literally the amount of time it takes to pull a gun and squeeze the trigger. All of those days, weeks, months, and even years of deliberation (and deliberate action) by sometimes dozens of highly trained people all tasked with not only making sure that the innocent are not incorrectly accused before the irreversible occurs, but that the punishment reflects the crime; all reduced to a judgement call lasting only a few seconds.

This is not to say that this is not sometimes justified. In the heat of battle, the police are, and should be, accorded some leeway in making that call. But that call should be made with extreme prejudice, and that call should be examined, after the fact, with as much deliberation as would have been made if the chain of justice had been allowed to normally unfold. Indeed, if we are to empower our police with the right of judge, jury, and executioner, then that right must be strictly observed and controlled to the highest extent possible. Higher even than when executed at normal speed under the justice system.

The United States is one of the few civilized nations that allows the execution of prisoners. But even here that is only practiced—in theory at least—after the full deliberation of justice and only for the most extreme offenses. We do not, for example, place someone on death row for scheduled execution for throwing a brick through a window, carrying a toy gun in public, riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road, selling loose cigarettes, carrying a knife, running away, or any other non-violent infraction. We do not allow the execution of children, under any circumstances. We do not allow the execution of the mentally infirm. To allow the police leeway to do any of these not only invites anarchy, but reduces them to nothing more than a gang of armed thugs with a common uniform.

Police brutality is unacceptable at any level. The role of the police is to enforce peace. Except for the most extreme cases, the roles of judge, jury, and executioner need to reside firmly and deliberately in the halls of justice, not out on the street.

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